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A Real Understanding of Cuba: Second Time’s the Charm

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While very few U.S. students have had the opportunity to study abroad in Cuba, even fewer have had the ability to study there twice. The first time I traveled to Havana was in the fall of 2011 for a period of four months, with Tulane University’s Junior Semester Abroad Program at the University of Havana. The four months I spent studying in Havana, were inspiring, unforgettable, and ultimately life-changing. At the end of that time I wasn’t just nervous about returning home and trying to figure out how to explain what seemed like a completely surreal experience to my friends and family, I was nervous about leaving my newfound customs, daily routines, and most importantly my friends, behind.

As a matter of fact, I was completely dreading it. When the day of my departure from Cuba finally came, I vowed to myself that sooner, rather than later, I would make my way back to Havana to reunite with the people, places, and culture that had left such an impressionable mark on me.

noah_cuba Noah Montague, the author, outside of Trinidad, Cuba

Luckily for me, the opportunity to return to Cuba did present itself, most surprisingly; however, it was only 5 months later. Thanks to President Obama’s easing of travel restrictions in early 2011 allowing the reinstatement of educational programs less than 10 weeks, in 2012 Tulane reinstated its Summer Abroad program in Havana. While I would only be there for about a month, the prospect of returning to Cuba to see friends and the island that I had called home just 5 months earlier was an amazing experience – besides, how many students had the opportunity to study in Cuba not once, but twice and all as an undergrad? In addition to traveling to the island to reconnect with friends, I was also excited to be part of something new, one of the first legal summer study abroad programs to happen in years. Having been to Cuba before, I was excited to share what I knew about Havana, its quirky customs, magical places, and my good friends, to the incoming group of students that unlike me, had never before traveled to the island.

Cuba_from_rooftopThe sight of Havana from a rooftop in Habana Vieja

After what seemed like an eternity of five months, I returned to Havana in May 2012. Passing through Terminal 2 at Jose Marti International Airport, I was immediately inundated with all the sights and sensations, both good and bad, that I remembered from Cuba. Traveling from the airport to our residence in El Vedado, I recognized many of the same sights I had passed on the way from the airport just months earlier, the overcast and rainy skies reminiscent of when I arrived in Havana in August the year prior. Once I arrived at our accommodations for the month, I immediately went to seek out my friends and on the way, pass through a few familiar sites from my previous visit. Spending my first day back in Havana, in a place I was proud to call home, with some of my best Cuban friends, was an incredible experience and one that like the first time seemed almost unbelievable.

pizza_in_cubaOne of the many locales that serves peso pizza in HavanaAs the first day passed, I began to feel less exuberant about my return to Cuba and more unease about the city I had formerly known. The truth of the matter is that on my second visit to Cuba I had begun to feel like a stranger: Havana had changed. My recognition that the city was not the way I left it started out in small doses. It began with places I used to visit. Local lunch spots had changed, some minutely and others dramatically, but all enough for me to notice. Sometimes it was just the menu – they no longer served my favorite sandwich or favorite plate, other times it was the people – the employees I had grown accustomed to no longer worked there and all the smiles I used to receive from being the funny Yuma kid who stopped by everyday had vanished, but worst of all sometimes it was a combination. In a matter of months my favorite all night pizza place had been replaced by another all night pizza place in the same location, but this time with different staff and pizza that was without a doubt, no longer my favorite. Other locations had changed too. Clubs that I once frequented in Havana were either closed, now filled with jineteros, or were just no longer fashionable to my cohorts in the city. Even Don Cangrejo, a fashionable Havana locale and the staple of my Friday night social life, had put a wooden deck over the pool and to me lost the happening vibe it once had. Everywhere things seemed to be changing, from the color of houses in El Vedado, to the price of a bottle of water at the local corner bodega, and even the people in the neighborhood where I was staying.

The most concerning change, however, was my relationship with my friends. Although my first few days were filled with joy at the pure fact of being able to see them again, the next few weeks were different. Conversations I had with my friends were tenser this time around. I found myself having arguments with my friends similar to ones in my first days in Havana, based on lack of communication – not so much due to language but due to culture. My friends noted how “American” I had regressed to being in just 5 months back home. They no longer wanted to take trips to get ice cream at Coppelia, drink 10 peso mojitos, nor do other things that I considered fun. For them, these activities were monotonous, run-of-the-mill, – ordinary. Out of school for the summer, all my friends wanted to do was lounge around during the day, avoid the Cuban heat, and enjoy the carefree lifestyle their summer vacations provided until September.

cuba_friends(left to right) Raiko, Alex, Me and Enrique enjoying German beer and sausage the International Fair in Havana

While all these changes disillusioned my former thoughts on Cuba and left me craving the memories of Cuba I had savored in my past visit, I tried not to let them ruin the short month I had on the island. As the days counted down, even with the disappointments I had encountered in Havana on the second visit, Cuba still remained one of my favorite places. When the final day arrived, I packed my bags, gave abrazos and said nos vemos pronto to all my friends, and headed to the airport. Although the trip had been different from the one I remembered in months prior, the departure from Cuba was just as challenging as it had been before. And this time around, without a finite plan as to when I would be returning next, this departure was just a bit more heartbreaking than my first.

A few days after I left Cuba and before I began my next summer travel journey to Chile, I began to take some time to reflect to myself what exactly had just happened in Cuba. Why, I wondered, did everything seem so different from my previous experience? What made going there for this trip of just 1 month so much more difficult than my first journey of 4 months? Were my Cuban friends right? Had I regressed to being just as, if not more, American on this trip than I was in my previous journey? As I contemplated through all these questions, one of the things that stuck out to me was a conversation that I had with my best Cuban friend Enrique, the day before my departure. During this particularly impassioned debate, one of many, we discussed what exactly it meant to have a true understanding of Cuba. Confident as I was that I understood how things were in Cuba, with not one but two trips to the island under my belt, I was astounded when Enrique told me that from the way I looked at Cuba, I didn’t fully comprehend what Cuba was. Slightly irritated by his accusations, I agreed with him that without a doubt I will never speak with a Cuban accent, look like a Cuban with my blonde hair, blue eyes, and clearly American style, or truly know it means to survive in the Cuban socialist system earning the average state wage of $20 USD a month, but through my education and two visits to Havana, I had one of the best understandings of what to expect in daily Cuban life. But Enrique explained things to me differently, telling me that someone who truly understands Cuba knows that they will never be able to fully understand Cuba. As Enrique explained, understanding Cuba means knowing and living with the fact that from day to day Cubans have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow. While I may go to my favorite restaurant one day, and be irritated or perplexed why it is non-existent the next, to a Cuban, as Enrique stated, this is just a fact of life and accepting that fact is what it means to truly know Cuba.Noah_and_EnriqueMy friend Enrique and I having one of our numerous discussions about Cuba

While I highly doubted that I agreed with this statement when he told it to me, as I laid in my bed a short while after, I began to understand the words that Enrique had told me. While I did have vast experience and knowledge of Cuban life in Havana and throughout the island, my second trip was muddled by my experiences on my first trip. In my second journey to the island, I had used the images of my first trip to construct an image of Cuba that seemed true to me, but in reality wasn’t true to Cuba. Sure I knew who Cubans were, where to go and what to see in Havana, and a multitude of other things, but the one thing I forgot to account for was change. As I began to further assess, I realized that my views were truly “American” as my friends had told me. As Americans, we are engrained to think that Cuba is a land stuck in time – most likely the 50’s. Old American cars, gorgeous mansions falling in ruins, soaking up sun on beaches with crystal blue waters during the day, and drinking ron y cola until the wee hours of the morning on the Malecon are the images we perceive as people from the United States. Are these visions true? Of course they are, but they lack the essence of Cuba that is essential to understanding the island – a land of uncertainty, the unknown, and most importantly change.

Cuba since the revolution in 1959 has maintained much of the same rhetoric and infrastructure that it had since Fidel Castro took power. That fact, however, does not negate the fact that Cuba and its revolution have constantly been changing and striving as the rest of the world does, to make life a little bit better, one day at a time. While the customs and spirit of Cuba and its citizens are unique and will forever hold some of the same truths year after year, it is by no means stagnate and unaffected by the world around it. While recounting these ideas to myself, I realized how lucky I am to a) have friends like Enrique who are willing to both challenge me, and be willing to help me really know what it means to understand Cuba, and b) that I had the ability to travel to Cuba twice so that I could truly understand the complexities and the depth of the island. With my new found understanding of Cuba in mind, it is with much hope that the next time I return to Cuba, it will continue to be its unexpected self – just a little bit different.